BJP’s hard work in Odisha beginning to pay off but CM Naveen Patnaik still a step ahead

Come 2019, it will be the Biju Janata Dal versus the Bharatiya Janta Party in Odisha.

columns Updated: Jun 25, 2017 11:08 IST
Rajesh Mahaptra
Rajesh Mahaptra
Hindustan Times
BJP,BJD,Biju Janata Dal
Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik addresses the press at his residence in Bhubaneswar. His BJD will face a challenge by a resurgent BJP in the 2019 elections. (PTI)

As I write this column, I am in Bhubaneswar for a function in the family. Thanks to my mother, any function in our family has to be an elaborate affair, with an extended list of relatives who would be invited and made to stay over for days. In the past, she and I would often fight over it, but this time I am enjoying the crowd of relatives. Conversations with them are yielding very helpful insights into what might happen as Odisha heads for simultaneous parliamentary and assembly elections in 2019.

Our relatives are spread all over the state; most of them are first-generation urban immigrants with strong roots in villages; they are educated, politically aware and usually have their ear to the ground. So far, their electoral choices have swung between the Congress party and Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (or its earlier avatars — the Janata Dal and the Janata Party) in what has been a bipolar polity for decades. But in 2019, they will have a third option to consider — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact, calling it a third option isn’t being fair to the BJP, which has seen a meteoric rise over the past two years to emerge as a credible challenger to the ruling BJD.

To be sure, my conversations with the visiting relatives have not been limited to choices they might make in the next elections. Here is what I am hearing from them, about the changes they are seeing in their areas and how these could redefine the political landscape of Odisha.

Elections in 2019 will be a close contest between Naveen’s BJD and Modi’s BJP. That’s seen as a big change in people’s perception in a very short span of time. When I came here two months ago for the BJP’s national executive meeting, not many were willing to take it seriously, because its influence was still seen as limited to western Odisha. In the coastal districts, which elect more than half of Odisha’s 147 MLAs and where politics is highly competitive, the BJP was a non-entity.

That has changed now. Relatives from my ancestral village, which falls under the Kendrapara constituency, report “a lot of BJP hawa” in their area.The “hawa” could be seen in other coastal constituencies, where the party has been aggressively pushing a booth-level campaign to induct volunteers. Not a week passes these days with Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan – the BJP’s likely chief-ministerial face for the state – showcasing his success in winning over local leaders from rival parties.

At this point, however, Naveen is still seen returning to power for a record fifth term. All that anti-incumbency talk, one hears, holds true mostly for urban voters, insists a relative from Kandhamal – an impoverished, tribal-dominated district in central Odisha. People in that part are happy with the BJD government’s one-rupee-a-kilo rice scheme, free bicycles to girls, mobile phones and laptops to meritorious students.

The vote-winning welfare schemes apart, there is one more thing that Naveen does well – in choosing when and how to hit his rival. Like Modi, he loves to surprise. Earlier this week, he hit out at the Centre, in an unusually aggressive style, over the inadequate hike in minimum support price for paddy. At his behest, his party quickly held a farmers’ rally outside the Governor’s house. Naveen’s outburst and the rally, both of which got generous coverage in the local media, ensured that if the paddy crop didn’t get them enough money the farmers would likely blame the BJP.

There are a few other things that are not working out in the BJP’s favour. Its attempt to polarise the state’s politics on communal lines hasn’t gone down well with people. Odisha has a small share of Muslim population, less than 3%, but its politics has rarely been influenced by religious or caste divides, argued a relative who lives near Bhadrak, a coastal town that recently witnessed Hindu-Muslim clashes, allegedly engineered by groups associated with the BJP. Success also brings new challenges. While the party is winning new friends and allies, internal squabbles have been on the rise. Two of its national executive members are sulking. One of them, an MLA, is rumoured to be rejoining the BJD.

Between now and 2019, Odisha politics will remain action-packed. How the script unfolds from now on, we’ll have to wait and see. One thing is clear though. It will be a fight between the BJD and the BJP, and a good one at that.

(The author is the Chief Content Officer, Hindustan Times. Follow him @rajeshmahapatra)

First Published: Jun 25, 2017 07:38 IST